Half-forgotten project is a key in next round of 6-party talks
At a now-sleepy construction site on North Korea’s east coast, an international group’s construction work on two light-water nuclear reactors has been idled since December 2003. The project of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, has disappeared for some time from the international news media, but about 125 South Korean workers and a handful of Korean, U.S. and Japanese officials have remained at the site to guard and maintain the works so far completed. Now the almost forgotten KEDO project has suddenly surfaced as a critical issue in continuing international efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear arms programs.
Speaking to nearly 200 education officials on Thursday, Chung Dong-young, South Korea’s unification minister and head of the National Security Council, said the light-water reactor project has become a thorny issue. “North Korea’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs and operate the light-water reactors are the core issues at the six-party talks, and the light-water reactor construction is the more difficult issue,” Mr. Chung said.
In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a pact called the Agreed Framework in Geneva, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear program. In return, KEDO was formed by South Korea, Japan, and the United States to build two civilian nuclear power reactors in the North. The European Union joined the group soon after it was founded.
Until the construction of the two reactors was completed, the United States was to provide heavy fuel oil to the North.
In 2002, the United States accused North Korea of running an undeclared nuclear program to enrich uranium and suspended its shipments of fuel oil through KEDO. After North Korea announced that it would resume reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from its Soviet-era reactor north of Pyongyang, KEDO suspended construction work on its reactors in December 2003. Diplomatic efforts to break the deadlock continued, including the convening of the “six-nation talks” on Korean nuclear issues involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United States. No progress was made, and the KEDO board voted to continue the project suspension for a second year beginning in December 2004.
The project is about 30 percent completed, a KEDO official told the JoongAng Ilbo in a recent interview, saying that one reactor containment building is about 50 percent complete and another about 15 percent finished. No key equipment for the reactors themselves has been moved yet to the site.
One of the containment buildings stands about 20 meters (70 feet) high, but further construction has been halted. The other is only slightly above ground level. Once about 1,200 workers, mostly South Koreans but at times also North Koreans and Uzbeks, worked busily there, but 90 percent of them are now gone.
“About 125 South Korean workers are staying at the Kumho site, mostly maintaining the machinery and guarding the construction site,” the KEDO official said. “The atmosphere up there is very quiet and peaceful.”
“We are just waiting and preparing to resume the work,” he continued. “There are engineers, administrative staff, security guards, restaurant workers and a medical team in North Korea. Whether the construction can resume or not is up to the six-party talks, so we are waiting for the verdict.” But that verdict has perhaps already been given. The U.S. and Japanese governments have both said they oppose the project's continuation, and a proposal from Seoul in July suggests that the South Korean government thinks it has a better way of using the money earmarked for the KEDO project.
That proposal would give North Korea 2,000 megawatts of electricity generated in the South if the six-party talks result in a commitment by North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms programs.
The South Korean government said that project would be financed without additional funding; it would divert funds allocated for the KEDO project but not yet spent. Officials in Seoul say they still have $2.4 billion that can be diverted from KEDO to the electrical transmission plan.
At the last round of the six-party talks in Beijing last month, North Korea put that offer in its pocket and asked for more. Pyongyang said it would consider the electricity offer a reward for a nuclear freeze and demanded that the light-water reactor construction be completed as well, in return for dismantling its nuclear programs.
That demand deadlocked the talks again. The U.S. government has made it clear that it will not allow the North to pursue a civilian nuclear program and that the light-water reactor project should be scrapped. Washington fears diversions to weapons production from those programs, and cites what it calls past broken promises by the North to end its nuclear arms programs.
The fourth round of six-party talks to end the North Korea nuclear crisis will reconvene tomorrow, but the fate of the light-water nuclear reactor project is still uncertain. Jack Pritchard, a former special U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea and the U.S. member of the board of KEDO, was skeptical about the organization’s future. Calling the light-water reactor construction a “dead project,” Mr. Pritchard told the JoongAng Ilbo in August that the Bush administration has decided almost irrevocably to discontinue the program. He said that U.S. congressional approval was critical to allowing core nuclear components to be sent to the site, but that there was no time for the U.S. administration to do so, even if it were willing to try.
Charles Kartman, who stepped down at the end of August as executive director of KEDO, recently told the DongA Ilbo, another Seoul daily newspaper, that he believes KEDO is still useful. Although the United States and Japan want to terminate the construction of the light-water reactors, he argued, there is a different reason for keeping the organization alive.
“Enormous investments have been made in KEDO already, and the organization has the expertise of having worked with North Korea for more than a decade,” Mr. Kartman said. “Regardless of how the nuclear disarmament negotiations are concluded, an organization is needed to carry out the agreement from the talks. Therefore, it is a great waste to completely scrap KEDO and start a new organization from the beginning.”
Other experts on Korean Peninsula affairs disagree. “There is no doubt that KEDO will be dismantled as an organization. The final decision is likely to be announced in November or December,” said Balbina Hwang, a Northeast Asia policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in the United States. “Although I partially agree with Ambassador Kartman’s sentiment that there is some value to having a multilateral organization with a history of cooperating with North Korea, this is not a good enough reason to continue to keep an organization alive whose purpose has failed. Moreover, it sends the wrong message to North Korea, one that the United States and its allies are actually interested in prolonging the light water reactor project.”
Dr. Hwang said Pyongyang’s demands for completion of the reactors and the “right” to a civilian nuclear energy program are unacceptable and should not even be negotiable. “The South Korean government is right to insist that it be abandoned and replaced with energy piped from the South,” she said. “While it is correct that sovereign countries do in principle have the right to pursue civilian nuclear energy programs for peaceful purposes, those rights are guaranteed to states who also sign on to international conventions and protocols. North Korea has proven on its own that it violates rules and principles, and therefore has forsaken those so-called rights through its own actions.”
Acknowledging that North Korea is in desperate need of energy supplies, Dr. Hwang added, “There is no need or requirement that North Korea must have that energy through nuclear energy.”
While conservatives see no future for KEDO and deny that North Korea has the right to a civilian nuclear program, other observers are more accommodating.
“North Korea will not give up its demand to pursue civilian nuclear programs, including the completion of the light water nuclear reactors, until the nuclear crisis is completely resolved,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University’s department of North Korea studies. “Pyongyang distrusts Washington deeply, and it knows very well that its demands will not be accepted by the United States, so the North Koreans will likely try to persuade South Korea to its way of thinking to achieve its goals.”
Mr. Nam also said he believes in the need to keep KEDO alive. “KEDO is the first multilateral negotiation body formed to resolve North Korean nuclear problems. If it fails in the end to function, then any system to be formed as a result of the six-nation talks is predestined to fail,” Mr. Nam said. “If KEDO falls apart, then it will not only be North Korea’s fault, but also a U.S. responsibility. I believe that keeping KEDO alive will be beneficial in many ways to resolve the nuclear crisis.”
by Ser Myo-ja